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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Will Berríos' Decision Bring New Life To The
by Lance Oliver
December 24, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
It's rare when a prominent politician makes a decision that
serves both his own interests and those of the taxpaying public,
is beneficial for both his party and the government, and wins
praise from his opponents as well as his followers. But Rubén
Berríos has done it.
The decision by the Puerto Rican Independence Party president
to resign his seat in the Senate to continue his sit-in on Vieques
won universal praise. It also brought a sigh of relief from Senate
President Charlie Rodríguez, who had originally cobbled
together the justification for Berríos continuing to receive
his Senate paycheck despite missing all its sessions but was finding
the situation increasingly hard to explain.
By resigning his seat, effective Dec. 31, Berríos does
far more than let his fellow senators off the hook and avoid a
rupture in the carefully constructed civility that characterizes
the tri-partisan approach to the Vieques issue. He has also enhanced
his own stature, brought about a helpful and logical reorganization
in the top ranks of the PIP structure and, not least of all, done
the right thing.
Back in early May, when Berríos joined the protesters
camping on Navy land on Vieques, the expectation was that he would
stay for a month or two and then let others carry on. But nothing
about the Vieques situation has moved as fast as most people expected
and now Berríos predicts he'll be sitting in his specially
constructed wooden hut on the beach until next April, at least.
There are reasons to believe that Berríos' actions will
help to rejuvenate his party. Before May, Berríos was
seen by his critics as an aging man who had held onto control
of his party too long and too exclusively. The party was criticized
for being undemocratic and for not nurturing new talent, especially
young people and women.
Berríos seemed destined to have his lifetime accomplishments
overshadowed by the fate of being remembered as the person who
rode the PIP downward toward near-disappearance as followers without
the courage of their convictions gravitated to the Popular Democratic
Party's "safe" brand of nationalism while more radical
independentistas defected and complained the PIP was getting
too old, complacent and establishmentarian.
Instead, Berríos now takes on the role he truly should
have, a leader because of his actions, his experience and his
accomplishments rather than because of the party offices he holds
or the government perks he controls.
Berríos' resignation cleared the way for Manuel Rodríguez
Orellana, a tireless party worker and effective communicator,
to replace him in the Senate. He will also be the candidate for
resident commissioner, a post he will not win but one for which
he is more qualified than either of the two men who might, Carlos
Romero Barceló and Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.
The reorganization allows PIP Secretary General Edwin Irizarry
Mora to run the party instead of running for resident commissioner;
allows electoral commissioner Damaris Mangual to focus on her
important work in an election year; and places Fernando Martín
in the role of leading the party in a day-to-day capacity.
What an interesting concept: each person doing what they should
be doing, and what they do well. If only the other two parties
would try it instead of perpetuating the old Puerto Rican tradition
of choosing one caudillo-like leader, whether man or woman,
pretending he or she has the charisma of a salsa star,
the wisdom of a Nobel laureate and the righteousness of the pope
and then giving him or her all the credit for victory, or all
the blame for defeat.
The PIP itself tried that approach for about a quarter of a
century with Berríos and many within the party believed
there was no alternative, because that's the only way the masses
would accept. It's just as likely that necessity, instead of
shrewdness, led Berríos to another path. He had to chose
between his Senate seat and his holding his ground on Vieques.
Regardless of his motivation, the fact that New Progressive
Party legislators, PDP senators and his own followers have all
applauded his decision shows that Berríos has a chance
to do something out of the ordinary.
The PIP and Berríos may return to their old ways some
day. Nothing about the outcome of the Vieques conflict is certain,
including how Berríos' and the PIP's role will be seen
by the voters of the near future or the historians who will write
the final version. But this is certainly the best chance the
party has for turning its slow decline into the energy of new
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email